Etta Cowdrey listens. She listens to her clients–that goes without saying. But the interior designer also listens to their homes. “What does it want to be? What is the palette?” she’ll ask. “Is it light and bright? Warm and moody? Does it want painted millwork or something heavier and darker?” So, when it came to transforming a Paradise Valley, Arizona, home with her colleague, interior designer Caroline Swaback, it had a surprising answer. Instead of a simple cosmetic refresh, the house wanted to be softer and brighter, inside and out. “We decided to smooth out and lift the spaces,” explains Cowdrey. “It was an unusual choice and direction.”
That the existing house wanted to be a white, light and airy place wasn’t immediately apparent and is a testament to the designers’ abilities to divine a structure’s needs. Built in 1999 on a site with commanding views of the valley, the home’s exterior featured copper fascia offset by heavy stacked-stone site walls. Both the interior designers and homeowners agreed that the copper should remain, but the stone–too heavy for the elegant lines of the structure–should be replaced. They soon found a Black Sea limestone with green undertones to cover the site walls, which now blend in with the surrounding landscape. Custom-ordered in the longest lengths available and placed in a random, undulating pattern, the limestone softens and brightens the exterior and serves as a transition for the interior’s material palette.
Inside, Cowdrey and Swaback chose white oak for the floors. (“Instead of feeling gnarled, heavy and dark, it feels sleek, smooth and soft,” Cowdrey points out.) And rather than a lacquered finish for the white-painted surfaces, the designers opted for a matte effect. An occasional burst of shine arises, in the hardware or on the kitchen’s quartz countertops, but the rest of the surfaces, including a stunning, book-matched, honed-marble backsplash in the kitchen, keep them in check.
Underpinning the material choices are structural and layout changes made with a similar emphasis on lightening and brightening. The designers removed a fixed piece of cabinetry separating the study’s entrance from the living room and the views beyond. “It was a strange pinch-point,” recalls Cowdrey. “You had to walk up the stairs to get around it.” Straightening out the curved wall of the kitchen required “a complete redesign,” says general contractor Jeff Lupien. “We tore down bearing walls, put in a hidden beam and did additional foundation work.” The intervention allowed for a more orthogonal space that’s also open to the views. Elsewhere, they converted a bedroom into a steam room that seats 10 easily. Removing the study’s millwork and coffered ceiling and combining it with an adjoining exercise room opens it to the views. And, anchoring one end of the home, a new structure holds the couple’s collection of wine and champagne. “The whole thing hangs on a cleat and gives the illusion that it’s floating,” she explains. “It’s made to look like a piece of art or sculpture.”
Cowdrey and Swaback looked to the clients’ laid-back lifestyle to drive furnishings. “They wanted to be able to have guests come over and watch a game or have a wine tasting,” says Cowdrey, so the key was to balance the modern forms the couple preferred with comfort and ease, in a range of gray and saddle hues. In the dining room, a space that could read more formally, the designers opted for a custom bench for a more casual feel. Additional custom pieces figured into their scheme, notably the buffet and table, also in the dining room, and the cantilevered partners’ desk in the study, made of rift white oak and with full plug-in capabilities in order to reduce wall clutter. Mixed in are rugs with textural rather than shiny appearances and light fixtures finished in black tones.
“The color comes from the champagne bottles and artwork and accessories,” says Cowdrey, noting that color also comes from the clients themselves. “She’s so fun and vibrant,” the designer says of the wife. “The home is a stage for them to have conversations and experiences.”
The designers also set their sights on the landscape, inspired by architect Vernon Swaback, Caroline’s father and the founder of their firm. “He’s the last living apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright and is a wonderful spirit guide for us,” Cowdrey reports. “His biggest fundamental is to think architecturally first, and he challenges us to think outside of the box.” Driven by his ethos, the pair conceived an idyllic terrace off the kitchen. Tucked on the north side of the building, the space she calls “a private little oasis” includes a water feature of limestone, metal and concrete, a fire pit and planters, all designed by the pair.
Reflecting on the house now, Cowdrey emphasizes its livability and softness, despite its clean lines. “There are some wow details, not garish or too over the top or flashy,” she says, adding, “I use the Chanel analogy of taking one accessory off–don’t overdo and keep it simple.” The result is ethereal and in keeping with its spectacular natural environment. “We made it feel like a home,” says the designer.